Anyone else seeing 14 months of crazy chaos radically alter what were once healthy relationships?
I’ve talked to people who have lost family relationships, friendships, marriages, long-term dating relationships, and connections with colleagues. Some of it over disagreements and varying interpretations of current events. Other times, the conflict seems to a result of weary, exhausted, and angry people making the kinds of decisions and showing the lack of kindness that comes when one is weary, exhausted, and angry.
I Want to Help Your Relationships Get Healthier!
The following 21 secrets will apply to all kind of relationships. In this article, relationships ≠ romantic relationships.
Also, these secrets are not all original to me. However, I do hope to share from my experience and earned wisdom, in order to save you on what someone once called the “dumb tax.” I’ve already paid that tax, so learn from my experience so your relationships can be healthier.
I could write a full email on each of these secrets, but I’m going to stick to a paragraph.
(If you have a secret to share with me that you’ve learned, please send it my way. It might even make the final list!)
Secrets to Healthy Relationships, Part 1
1. Zero conflict is a sign of untested or unhealthy relationship.
I’ve heard so many couples say “we’re just so healthy – we never fight!” Constant conflict can be a sign of an unhealthy relationship, but so can zero conflict. When conflict is non-existent, trust is often missing. You have to have trust to allow for the kind of honesty that creates genuine and healthy conflict. Do you really know a person or the strength of a relationship if you’ve never been through a conflict?
2. Apologize without excuse or explanation.
Apologies are so easy to tank or undermine. Excuses, blaming, ifs, explaining and justifying – stop! We’ve all been on the other side of a bad apology, where the person thought they were making it better but they made it much worse. The shorter, the simpler, the clearer apology – the better!
**HELP WITH APOLOGIES: The most helpful content I’ve encountered on apologizing is found in two podcast episodes I listened to in 2020. You can check out those episodes here.
3. No one is over-encouraged.
Healthy relationships are life-giving. They are the place where we give and get encouragement. Life has a way of spilling all of the encouragement out of us, especially over the last 13 months. Healthy relationships are the space where we give and receive encouragement. If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, look for an area where you can begin to genuinely encourage the other person. I’ve even found that encouraging others in seasons where I feel depleted can help fill me back up at the same time! Give and model what you want to receive and experience.
4. Talk to people, not about people.
Gossip is so easy in a social-media and smart-phone driven world. It’s so much easier to talk ABOUT people than it is to talk to people. Going home and talking to a significant other or going out and talking with friends about a problem with someone at work is way easier than walking down the hall at work and talking to that person directly. While it’s WAAAAY harder to talk ABOUT people, nothing gets better until we talk TO people.
5. Healthy people go to counseling, too.
At one time, I believed that people only go to counseling when their marriage was hanging by a thread or when they blew up their life in self-destruction. I was very wrong. Counseling shouldn’t just be a last resort; it’s a great first option. Unhealthy people can benefit from counseling; healthy people can too. Nearly every person I’ve talked who has been in or is in counseling says the same thing. “I wish I had gone sooner.” The healthier I get, the healthier “we” can get – no matter what context “we” sits within.
6. A healthier me = a healthier us.
One person’s will isn’t enough to create a healthy relationship. That’s why I didn’t say “a healthier me = healthy us.” A healthy “us” depends on both of “us.” However, one person deciding to get healthier has monumental impact. That’s why I always suggest one person in a couple go to counseling even if the other person won’t. Deciding to get healthier is a choice that always pays dividends, even if the relationship falls apart.
7. Connect before you correct.
I learned this one from my counselor. Some of the harshest words I’ve used have been used with the people closest to me. The way I do correction can tear down connection. So, my counselor recommended that my wife and I increase our connection before you try correction. Correction in the context of connection and commitment has the best chance of being received and producing the desired results.
(*Note: I’m not talking about the compliment sandwich – also known by a more crass nickname. This disingenuous, manipulative trick is easy to see a mile away. I’m talking about building and cultivate a genuine connection and then “pre-tagging” a piece of difficult or corrective feedback, in order to ensure that the person receiving the “correction” hears your heartfelt intent.)
8. Have hard conversations when you’re at your best not your worst.
When my wife and I were engaged, we got a lot of terrible advice! I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. (BTW we got even more terrible advice when we were expecting our first child). One piece of terrible marriage advice was “don’t go to bed angry.” I think that was an attempt to apply a Bible verse about anger.
The problem(s) with this advice? Not every disagreement could be solved in one conversation. Also, my wife was not a night person. Fighting late at night was not wise for us.
We learned through experience that a better path was having hard conversations when we were at our best. We did our best to acknowledge the hurt or pain in the moment and then identified when we were going to talk about the situation. No one is helped when we’re doing hard things we don’t have capacity for doing.
9. Not all healthy relationships look the same.
I have several healthy friendships with other guys. They do not look the same. Now there are some principles I’m working out in each of them, but those relationships aren’t carbon copies of each other. The close friendships I’ve had over the last 15 years have not been carbon copies of each other. At one point, I tried to make every relationship look like the ones that came before it. But, over time and through experience, I learned that wasn’t wisdom.
Even in this series of emails, I’m seeking to share principles with you, but I’m well aware that not all healthy relationships look the same.
10. Elephants make messes.
The stuff we don’t talk about in relationship is like an elephant in the room. Everyone knows the elephant is there, but ignoring it cannot make it go away. Few things, if any, get better when they’re ignored. Ignoring a problem in a relationship is like befriending an elephant. Over time, that elephant makes a bigger and bigger mess and it begins to dominate the relationship. Introduce the elephant – befriend it – instead of ignoring it.
There’s no guarantee that difficult conversations will go well. But eliminating conflict is not the path to a healthier relationship.
11. Boundaries are essential.
Here’s how one of my friends defined healthy boundaries: “relational boundaries should be like crime scene tape that allows the right people in but keeps others out. It requires others to respect it even though they could easily try to walk under it or remove it. The people who get the most upset about your boundaries are usually the ones who want to violate them the most. Boundaries are not walls: they can be moved or removed when someone (God or yourself) authorizes/directs it.”
12. Clarity is kindness.
A ton of relational conflict comes from lack of clarity. Many of us fear conflict and we deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re doing someone else a favor by not leveling with them. But when we increase the clarity in a relationship, we’re actually being king. Healthy relationships are built on the belief that “clarity is kindness”. Now, clarity expressed in a way that seeks to hurt and demean is common – but that’s clarity with corrupt means. In general, healthy relationships include heaping doses of clarity.
13. Progress > Perfection.
Healthy relationships are not perfect relationships. If you see a relationship and you think it’s perfect, know that you’re not seeing a full picture. Healthy relationships didn’t become healthy without time or effort. Healthy relationships are marked by a belief that the goal isn’t perfection, but sustained progress. When a relationship feels like It’s moving somewhere that both parties want to be, the progress gives hope for the future and motivation for the present. Remember, progress > perfection.
14. Ask, don’t assume.
Many relationship conflicts come because one party made an assumption. As the old adage goes, assumptions make us all…look bad. 🙂 Instead of assuming, ask a question. Contrary to popular opinion, asking questions doesn’t make one look dumb. Asking questions revealed wisdom and intelligence. When someone asks me a great question, it reveals their thoughtfulness and insight. Now, if you’ve asked already and need to ask again because you didn’t listen or care, then you’ll need to deal with that problem (lack of caring or intentionality). But, on the whole, do all you can to avoid making decisions based upon assumptions.
15. Have zero tolerance for toxic behavior.
None of us are perfect. Relationships allow us to get close enough to each other to hurt each other. Relationships should provide the environment for us to grow and change. Left in isolation, few of us would ever progress from our current state. However, there’s a difference between growing edges and toxic behavior. There’s a big difference between blind spots, immaturity, and personality flaws AND toxic behavior. Toxic behavior leads to abuse verbally, physically, emotionally, sexually, mentally, or even spiritually. When something happens that causes irreparable harm, there should be zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. Boundaries get introduced and sustained patterns of behavior change must be given before boundaries are lowered.
16. Think intentionally, not immediately.
Healthy relationships don’t develop overnight. We live in an “immediate” world where we can get many things we want in matter of hours or at worse, a couple of days. But relationships don’t develop at the speed of Google Fiber or FedEx. Healthy relationships develop at the speed of an incubator – slowly and within intentional care. Healthy things grow, but they grow at the speed of agriculture, not Amazon Prime. Think of your relationship growing in terms of seasons of the year, not hours on the clock or days on a calendar.
17. Laughter is under-rated.
Healthy relationships include laughter. Not because the people aren’t taking life seriously, but rather because they’ve found a way to look for joy in the midst of even the darkest pain. Whether it’s finding a way to laugh instead of just crying or recalling a different time when something funny occurred, laughter is medicine for the soul. Relationships often take us into or through dark and difficult moments in life. We need a release valve for that tension and pain, which laughter readily provides.
18. Healthy relationships are reciprocal without keeping score.
A sign of an unhealthy relationship is scoreboard-checking. When you’re keeping score of who initiated last time or who paid last time or who is doing more work, that’s a bad sign. Healthy relationship include a balance of reciprocity, where each party is contributing in a balanced way. When someone begins thinking “I’m always the one who calls” or “I’m always the one who gets the check” or “I’m always the one who listens to their struggles”, that’s like a warning light on the dashboard of a car. It’s time to check something deeper before the problem gets worse. Life includes give-and-take, but when it’s all one or the other, things become unhealthy.
19. One person cannot meet every need.
If you’re in a romantic relationship or married, that person cannot meet every relationship need you have. I have some great friends – but I don’t have one friend that scratches all of my friendship needs. The friendships I have at work – they all complement one another.
The myth is one person can meet all of another person’s needs. A best friend, a soulmate, a business partner. The truth is that’s more weight than one relationship can hold. Healthy relationships recognize the limits of each person and respond accordingly.
20. Time doesn’t always measure health.
Healthy doesn’t mean you’ve been friends forever and a long history with a person doesn’t guarantee health. Comparison isn’t helpful, despite its pervasiveness today. It’s what we do over time that determines whether the relationship(s) we’re in trend in a healthy direction.
21. Healthy relationships reflect a LOT of work.
At the end of the day, there’s work involved in every relationship. Drama takes work to navigate. Conflict takes work. Repairing takes work. We drift into unhealthy patterns; we do not drift into healthy ones.
When you encounter a healthy working relationship, a healthy friendship, or even a healthy marriage, there’s a story of work to be told there.
That’s the List!
These 21 “secrets” are lessons I’ve learned from healthy relationships I admire, healthy people I respect, and my own failures over the years. I hope they’ve been helpful for you!
If you’ve got a question about one of these, a story to share, or a relationship secret you’d add to the list, send me an email (email@example.com)!